Tariq Farooq first mentioned the idea of doing a MENA (Middle East & North Africa) tour to me in Beijing last fall. He asked if I'd be willing to travel half-way around the world to speak to people in English that primarily spoke French and Arabic, and I - of course - said "yes." Here's Tariq being interviewed by Lillian Buziak at Collaborate 2014 (audio is a bit difficult to hear):
I had two reasons for wanting to go: I do love educating/evangelizing for Oracle EPM, BI, and Business Analytics. The possibility of reaching new audiences for the first time was exciting. My other reason for going was that I wanted to experience totally different cultures than I ever have before. I've spoken on 5 continents (now 6 after this tour and I'm anxiously awaiting the OTN Tour to Antarctica) before and have seen presented everywhere from a women's college in Mumbai that was 95F with no air conditioning in the presentation room to a ballroom in the Philippines that had 3 simultaneous English sessions going on (in one room!) all happily observed by smiling Filipinos. From China to India to Australia to Germany, I have seen some amazing slices of life, but nothing prepared me for the differences I saw on this tour.
In each of the sections below, I have linked the header to a blog from my new best German friend, Bjoern Rost. He blogged after every stop and unlike me, he actually understood all the Oracle RDBMS sessions on the tour. Visit http://portrix-systems.de/blog/author/brost/ to see his entertaining blog posts. (Warning: though I think Bjoern is hilarious, being German, you may find his posts to be 'not funny.' German humor is an acquired taste.)
I left for the first stop, Tunisia, on Memorial Day (in the USA), May 26, 2014...
To get to Tunisia in time for my session, I left Dallas. Texas at 10AM on Monday, flew to JFK (New York City), flew to Rome, flew to Tunis, and had a nice car waiting for me at the airport compliments of our hosts in Tunisia. I landed at 10:30AM on Tuesday and considering I was flying to Africa, I felt that the trip went by quickly. I made it through customs in Tunis in about 15 minutes, walked out the front door of the hotel, and was in an entirely different world.
Speaking in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia had done absolutely nothing to prepare me for Africa. The closest thing I could compare it to in my life (but the comparison does not do it justice) was the cities of India: chaotic, dirty, cramped, foreign, and chaotic (worth mentioning again). Now take all that, remove the cows, and make it Muslim.
My host picked me up in a nice car and we began the hour drive to Beja where the conference was being held. We passed mounds of trash piled up in the center of the roads though thankfully the heat (high was ~75F when I arrived) didn't make the place smell horribly. Traffic laws seemed to be non-existent, but it moved fairly quickly being in the middle of the day. I loved looking out the window at the shops along the road and carts selling watermelon approximately every 100 feet (I was told by my host that it was watermelon season).
We left the city about 20 minutes after I got in the car and I was suddenly in Tuscany. At least, it looked like Tuscany: fields of amber waves of grass, wide open spaces, wildflowers, lakes, olive groves, country life, gorgeous hills... truly one of the most beautiful countrysides I've seen in my entire life. Since I had been traveling for over a day, the pleasant scenery soon lulled me to sleep.
My driver woke me up when we got to the technical university in Beja. I walked in to find Tariq trying to explain Oracle Enterprise Manager to a bunch of college students who didn't seem to understand databases let alone Oracle. I tried to hide in one of the back seats, but Tariq immediately called me up on stage to answer a question about how to develop optimal databases.
Not long after I got there, we broke for lunch. Our hosts took us to a traditional Tunisian restaurant in downtown Beja. They were kind enough to make me vegetarian food. Lunch is apparently a sacred event not-to-be-hurried in Tunisia, so we made it back to the university over 2 hours after we left, fully satiated.
I volunteered to give a session introducing Big Data and Analytics to the college kids, because I felt that it required little technical background. It seemed to go over well. My favorite part was when I told a joke about the differences in social media sites and only 10 people laughed. The people on either side of those 10 then asked them to repeat in Arabic and French what I had said, which caused those people to laugh. They then shared it around the room and it was like a disease vector of laughter that took 2 minutes to make it around to the 150+ students in the room. In case you haven't seen it, here's essentially what I said out-loud:
After the sessions were over, I asked one of the professors why everyone listened so intently if they had no background in Oracle. I mentally wondered if it was because I was an awesome presenter bringing the gospel of Oracle to the future of Africa. I was told "they didn't understand a lot of what you were saying, but they love listening to people speak English." So much for my future African disciples.
Our hosts offered to drive us to Dougga, the so-called "best preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy." It sounded like an exaggeration, but it was actually an understatement. Dougga was once a "small" Roman town on the fringes of the empire... and the miles of town are for the most part still there. We arrived shortly after they closed the gates for the day. Our hosts got out of the front car in our 4-car caravan to talk to the guards. I was in the last car and saw an interesting polite dialog when our hosts started pointing to my car. I waved back. The guard smiled and raised the gates for our caravan to enter. I wondered if bribing had occurred, so I asked how we got in after hours. Our gracious hosts explained that I was renowned historian, Edward Roske, a visiting professor from the United States of America whose sole purpose for being in Tunisia was to see the Dougga ruins. They said I should take lots of pictures and walk around looking officially important. I discovered later that they weren't kidding: they really did tell this to the guard, so I took at least 50 pictures and took some very official selfies to help sell my renowned historian status.
The ruins were truly majestic. Every time I came around a bend, there was another temple, theatre, circus, road, market, tunnel, column, arch, statue, or something else 2,000 years old to be seen. It is all in a semi-wild state with no borders separating the ruins from the countryside. There were even wildflowers growing in the central square:
My favorite moment of the entire trip occurred when I broke away from the rest of our group to go explore some arches on the edge of the ruins. I went to take a picture of one of the doorways, and I got photobombed:
I went through the doorway to discover a local sheepherder grazing his sheep right in the ruins:
They started on the edge of the ruins but eventually the herder marched his sheep right down the center of the 2,000 year old road leading through Dougga. Tariq decided to join their herd:
I can't stress enough how amazing this site is. I would encourage people to visit Tunisia if for no other reason than to see Dougga and Carthage. You have never felt Roman society like you can wandering around the ancient town with only sheep to keep you company.
Eventually, the guards at the entrance (the only guards in the place, so far as we could tell) came to find our renowned historian group because they wanted to go home. We stayed the night in the Golden Tulip Hotel in Carthage which was a 4-star hotel for under $200 USD per night. I recommend it to anyone. The next morning, the OTN MENA 5 (Tariq, Mike Ault, Bjoern, me, and Jim Czuprynski) headed for the flight to Cairo then on the Riyadh.
While the Islam is a part of the culture in Tunisia, Islam is the culture in Saudi Arabia. I have never seen a country more dominated by a single religion than Saudi Arabia. It is one of the most difficult places in the world to get a visa (they suspended tourist visas 5 years ago) and it's even harder for a non-Muslim like me. I spent 4 hours clearing customs which gave me a lot of time to study up on what I was in for.
My guidebook (and several websites) told me about all the things I wasn't allowed to do, say, or maybe even think when I got to Saudi. Here's what I was told versus what actually happened:
- Muslims everywhere. Yes, 100% true. They have calls to prayers everywhere and we had to stop presenting when it was time for prayer. The whole city stops, for that matter, when it's prayer time. I was lucky enough to be in a public park for evening prayer one day. The sounds of the call to prayers across the city were beautiful.
- Traffic fatalities. 90% true. Saudi apparently has the highest incidence of traffic fatalities in the world because traffic laws are more like traffic vague suggestions only to be followed if everyone has plenty of time and sort of feels like it. I was prepared to almost die every time I got in a car, and while I saw no deaths, I saw multiple car accidents of the fender bender type each day I was in Saudi. At one point, we were stopped at a red-light to make a left turn. With traffic coming from both directions in front of us, a car behind us who wanted to make a left-hand turn felt that our stopping was delaying his day. He didn't honk or behave rudely in any way: he just drove around us and made the left-turn on the red into oncoming traffic. No one seemed annoyed at the man for doing it.
- Pornography. 100% nonexistent in Saudi. They even go through the magazines in the shops and black out with a sharpie anything that's considered too revealing (shoulders, waists, knees, etc.). They also sharply monitor the web and block out any site deemed inappropriate (including Bing.com with safe search set to anything but strict).
- Pictures of other people. 0% true. I was told before I went that Muslims do not believe in having images taken of people. What I actually found was the most selfie-absorbed culture I've ever seen, and I live in America with a teenage child. I couldn't walk 10 feet at the Riyadh or Jeddah events without someone taking a picture. I was also told that you couldn't take pictures of public buildings or in public buildings (like the national museum). Totally untrue: people were taking pictures of just about anything except women.
- Women being covered. 100% true. All the women wore black abbeyahs at all times. You're not allowed to film them or talk to them. That said, I didn't see that many. Both the events in Riyadh and Jeddah were male-only. We did see women in the public places particularly near retail outlets and in the city parks & museums.
- Men wearing suits. 25% true. For the most part, the men wore traditional dress shirts and head coverings. I wore a suit (no tie) which considering it was 110F+, was quite a sacrifice. My fellow presenters wore ties in addition to their suits which proves they're more willing to sacrifice for the cause of Oracle.
- No alcohol. 100% true but weird. The first night I got to Riyadh, I opened my minibar to find... a Budweiser. Closer examination revealed it was a "Budweiser NA" signifying no alcohol. Every restaurant we went to offered us "Saudi champagne" or "Saudi wine" which apparently means alcohol-taste without any actual alcohol. Since I hate the taste of alcohol, I didn't think non-alcoholic alcohol would taste any better, so I avoided it.
- No narcotics. 100% true so far as I was willing to test it. I actually panicked during customs at the thought that maybe I had some prescription drug in my laptop bag that had a narcotic in it. Narcotics are a capital crime in Saudi, and I spent most of my 4 hours wondering if Ambien counts as a narcotic. Luckily for me, I wasn't executed for sleep aid smuggling.
After the worst customs experience of my entire life at the airport in Riyadh, I got to the Marriott hotel for about 4 hours sleep before the day was to begin. I got to go up to the concierge floor for an elaborate breakfast and a great view of the Riyadh skyline.
I got introduced at one point as "Edward Roske from the United States, a rich man who did not inherit his business from his father." That was unique and though it left me speechless, the audience seemed very impressed at my ability to become head of a business without my father having to die first.
After the conference, our hosts took us to the National Museum. Like much of Riyadh, it looks like it was built in the last 5 years, and in the case of a museum, this worked very well. Since they built it all at once (versus many amazing museums around the world that were created over hundreds of years), it was able to tell a complete story from the beginning of the universe up through today (as opposed to just having rooms of collections). It was a very Muslim-centric view of history, but I found the educational aspects fascinating. The sign on the way in said no photography, but since the massive museum apparently only had 4 people working in it (all at the front desk), everyone ignored it. I found a cube in the first hall that seemed Essbase-like.
My favorite exhibit was a scale model of Mecca and Medina as viewed at night. Being non-Muslim, I will never see Mecca, so this is as close as I will ever get:
After the museum, our hosts took us to Kingdom Centre, the tallest building in Saudi Arabia (for now). It has 30+ open stories at the top with a skybridge connecting them. Here's a view from the ground of the building (notice the necklace like architecture with the bridge on top) and a view from the building of the ground:
Our hosts took us to dinner (which was unfortunately a meat-on-a-stick restaurant, unfortunately for me since I'm a vegetarian). Since I wasn't able to eat much, I got to talk at length to the CEO of eSolutions. He was a fascinating man who told me all about how Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Coast Community is ready for analytics and reporting. He was a former Pakistani military man, but his love of country and family shined through in everything he said.
The following morning, we journeyed to Jeddah over on the Red Sea coast of Saudi near Mecca. The weather was like Riyadh except with crazy humidity. It reminded me of Houston on the hottest day of summer. We were in Jeddah for less than 24 hours so I don't admittedly have a ton to say about it. I saw nothing more than the airport, the drive to/from the hotel, the venue where we presented, and a fast casual restaurant (more tasty Lebanese food!) where we had dinner.
The venue was small since it was a half-day event and lightly attended. I did ask if I could present on a different topic since I had gotten a bit bored talking Big Data all the time. This time, I spoke on "In-Memory Databases" which is a hot topic these days thanks to the SAP guys saying "Hana" at least once every sentence. After the morning event, the OTN MENA 5-1 (Bjoern went straight to Dubai since there weren't enough speaker slots in Jeddah) headed for the airport for the flight to the United Arab Emirates. Getting out of Saudi took 2 minutes at Customs which goes to show, I guess, that they're a lot happier to get rid of you than let you in.
I honestly don't know where to begin with Dubai. It is truly one of the most amazing cities on Earth and almost indescribable to anyone who hasn't actually witnessed it. My flight landed on Saturday evening in the largest airport I think I've ever seen. Clearing customs took minutes then I headed for the cleanest (and probably newest since it just opened in 2009) train system in the world. The view from the Dubai Metro was stunning. If Riyadh looks like it was built in the last 10 years, Dubai looks like it was built in the last 10 minutes. It reminds me of New York City if they took out all the advertising, 90% of the people, and any building under 1,000 feet tall.
I was lucky enough to stay at a hotel in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (by far: the Burj is over 200 stories tall at over 2,500 feet). The Burj sets all kinds of "tallest" records including the tallest outdoor observation deck. Here's a view of several buildings below that are all over 1,000 feet tall (with an Edward in it for perspective).
My room had a view of the Dubai Fountains. No offense, Vegas, but these fountains put the Bellagio fountains to shame. They're more agile, faster, better lit, larger, and frankly, classier. And if you're staying in the hotel in the Burj Khalifa, you can listen to the fountain music through the TV:
At the base of the Burj Khalifa is the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world (you hear a lot in Dubai of "that's the largest _____ in the world"). It's 3-4 times the size of Mall of America if that puts it in perspective. It has over 1,200 shops, over 150 restaurants, and some of the strangest (yet up-scale) stores you've ever seen. There was one selling full-size metal camels, for instance (these were the only camels I saw on my trip). I ate at the Dubai Mall every day I was in Dubai and felt I could eat there every day for a year without repeating an entree. I am normally not a fan of malls, but I loved the Dubai Mall. It wasn't crowded and the people that were there kept to themselves. This could actually be said about everywhere in the Middle East: the people are nice, but they keep to themselves. For an introvert like me, it's heaven. You can be alone in a crowd.
The first full day I was there, I presented in the morning, burned my feet on the sands of a beautiful beach at lunch, and was skiing in the afternoon. Yes, skiing. The Mall of the Emirates (another mall that dwarfs anything we have in the USA) is not only massive, it has its own indoor ski resort inside. It's not a tiny ski hill either: it's 1,200 feet long with three separate runs (a blue/intermediate run, a green/beginner run, and a small terrain park). They also have lots of other fun activities to do including a penguin exhibit, ziplining over the ski hill, sledding, and large transparent hamster balls to roll down the hill in.
For around $50 USD, you get a lift ticket, ski pants, ski jacket, boots, skis, and poles for 2 hours. A full-day pass is only around $15 USD more but I opted for 2 hours. (You can only ski indoors in Dubai so much, obviously.) There were at most 15 people skiing, but there were hundreds of people from the Middle East paying their $50 to ride up and down the ski lift basking in the glory of being cold. The whole place is chilled to around 23F and the snow is glorious: it's soft and velvety because they actually make it snow indoors every night (unlike the ice blowers we use for man-made "snow" in the USA). I skied for my full 2 hours without a break and I loved that I was so cold by the end that I had to go back into the mall and get a soy hot chocolate at Starbucks.
I had too many amazing experience to recount (and this is already seeming a bit like an advertisement for Dubai) but the most fundamentally changing experience of my trip was a visit to a mosque in Dubai. Hosted by an eloquent British Muslim woman in a black abbeyah, she spent an hour educating a group of Westerners all about Islam. I was taken aback by how... peaceful their religion is. She covered the 5 pillars of Islam in a way that made me understand 1,000,000,000+ Muslims far better than I ever have. I think that if everyone in the Western world could attend that one hour I did, we would have a level of cultural understanding that would ease a ton of our current fears. They let us take lots of pictures and even let us video them doing 5 minutes of prayers. It was moving and if you are ever in Dubai, make sure you visit the Jumeirah Mosque during one of their visitation hours (it's free unlike most everything else in Dubai).
My final presentation was in Dubai and it was a bittersweet end to a whirlwind week. Every single day was spent traveling, speaking, or both, so it was nice to finally have a break. That said, I will consider the other members of the OTN MENA 5 to be friends for life and I miss them already. As I finished my presentation on Big Data (for the third time on the trip), I looked out at the anxious faces in the audience and realized that I would miss the Muslim world far more than I ever expected to.
If there's ever a 2nd OTN tour of the Middle East, Africa, or both, sign me up. Until then, thank you for letting me be a part of the most inspirational, educational tour I've ever experienced.